Sunday, January 25, 2015

Strong Female Protagonist, Book One

Strong Female Protagonist began as a webomic in 2012, and this volume collects the first four chapters of the story. I actually began reading this series online, and I bought the first two chapters in hard copy, so this tale was not new to me. But I enjoyed it all the same, because I feel that this take on superheroes is fresh, smart, and very compelling.

The plot follows Allison Green, a powerfully strong and invulnerable young woman who just wants to go to college and live a normal life. Unfortunately for her, she used to be the superheroine Mega Girl, and her past keeps cropping up and complicating her life.
 
What makes this comic smart for me is that Allison is a surprisingly complex and interesting character surrounding by what could be stock characters but turn out to be quite intriguing in their own rights. Additionally, there are fascinating twists on the dynamics of superheroes and supervillains and a deep, dark conspiracy to contend with. There is so much greatness to digest in this comic.

The artwork and writing fit together seemlessly. And I love how the illustrations both cling to and expand on superhero conventions but also retain the flavor of the online work. I especially appreciate the use of alt-text in the print version, where it is placed at the bottom of each page. That text comments on the story, is metacommentary on the craft, or tells jokes, and I appreciate that extra touch.

This comic is the product of writer Brennan Lee Mulligan and artist Molly Ostertag. Mulligan is an improviser, actor, and author who performs with the Upright Citizens Brigade. Ostertag also works on a number of other comics, including Journey to the Valley of Whispers and Bacchanalia. Both creators speak about their collaboration in this interview.

The webcomic collected here is well received and very positively reviewed. It was also the focus of a successful Kickstarter campaign, which funded this collection. Marykate Jasper called it "a fascinating superhero book." Nightwing17 wrote, "It’s wonderful to see a series exploring areas of the superhero genre that are usually resigned to subtext and throw-away sideplots." Chris Sims summed up, "It’s well worth reading, and if you’re not already, you’re missing out."

This collection of Strong Female Protagonist was published by Top Shelf, who has a preview and much more here. The story continues online, updated on Tuesdays and Fridays.

I read this book on my Kindle Fire using the Comixology app, and I have to say I really liked the experience.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Deadly Class, Volume 1: Reagan Youth

I've said it before, but it seems to me that Rick Remender is everywhere in comics these days. Reagan Youth is the first volume of the ongoing series Deadly Class, collecting issues 1-6. Deadly Class is set in 1987. It stars Marcus Lopez Arguello as the protagonist, a teenage Nicaraguan immigrant living in San Francisco. After his parents' deaths, he finds himself bouncing around the social services circuit, and ends up homeless.
 
 
After a few months on the streets, with no prospects or hope, somehow he gets recruited to attend the underground King’s Dominion High School for the Deadly Arts, a school for assassins. This school is more like a prison, with various violent cliques vying for power among the student body. Also, they have classes about such things as poisoning, beheading, and assassin psychology. I think of it as a sort of Harry Potter meets Oz type of tale.

I thought that the story was full of intriguing twists and turns, and I also found myself interested in a good number of the characters and their motivations. Remender speaks about how he drew from his own youthful experiences in this series, and that attention to personal detail is apparent. He also collaborates well with artists Wes Craig and Lee Loughridge on storytelling that well balances atmosphere, action, and personal drama. I think that this book is full of great action sequences and stylized, suspenseful scenes that create a general vibe of coolness, kind of like a contemporary, comic book version of the 1999 movie Go. I had a lot of fun reading this book.

The reviews I have read about it have been largely positive. Publishers Weekly was unimpressed with Remender's story, calling it too interested in "gratuitous thrills," but they did find favor with "Craig’s appealing artwork" and "Loughridge’s European-style color palette." Barry Thompson called it "a tale that’s equal parts empathetic and fucking terrifying." Marcus Deehan concluded, "If you like the sound of a grittier, more vulgar Harry Potter or Naruto, or if you enjoyed Resevoir Dogs, Rockstar’s Canis Canum Edit or maybe even Freak and Geeks then I recommend you pick up a copy and give it a read."

Reagan Youth was published by Image Comics, who have previews and much more available here. The series is currently at issue 10. This book contains profane language and frequent violence, so I recommend it for readers old enough to handle both.


Thursday, January 15, 2015

Seconds

Seconds carries a lot of weight, as it is the next work from Bryan Lee O'Malley after his wildly successful Scott Pilgrim series that was adapted into a major motion picture. I really loved the Scott Pilgrim comics because they were fun, clever, and they combined sequential art and video game aspects into some excellent storytelling. The good news with this volume is that all of those expert artistic chops and narrative flourishes are also used to great effect. In particular, the use of a variety of panels and sound effects to drive the story is outstanding.

This book plays on some familiar themes for O'Malley fans, of growing up and becoming an adult and also of dealing with a cast of quirky characters. Instead of looking at the egos involved in a music scene, here we get to see the egos involved in the restaurant business. The main character is Katie, a 29-year-old head chef who has created a hugely successful restaurant named Seconds. She is having a secret relationship with a co-worker, which gets complicated when an ex-boyfriend pops back into the picture. She is also in the midst of a transition, trying to save money so she can open a second restaurant, this time so she can retain ownership. Being economical, she lives upstairs in a spare room at Seconds, and there she has some  encounters with a strange being that seems to live in the top drawer of a dresser in her room.
The new restaurant appears to be a money pit, and when an opportunity to change one mistake in her life arises, Katie takes it. It may be that she is just hallucinating because of stress, but she eats a magic mushroom and follows a set of directions because she finds herself at her wits end. Not to spoil things too much, but when she wakes up the next day her life is different, and she sets a very complicated series of events in motion.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Oliver Sava commented that this book "arrives with high expectations, and it meets them all, delivering the style and humor of O’Malley’s past works with greater emphasis on mood, detail, and complex character relationships." Jesse Schedeen wrote, "while it's easy enough to predict the general course of the plot, O'Malley keeps things interesting through a combination of wit and creative storytelling." Matt Little gushed, "I cannot say enough good things about this book. I put it down and immediately wanted to read it again."

Seconds was published by Random House, who provides a preview and much more here.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Fingerprints


Vanity may be one of the driving forces of US culture, what with our obsessions with fame and celebrity. On a more mundane level, we have huge cosmetics and body modification industries that aim to shape people into youthful ideals. Fingerprints tackles all of these issues, with a look at Dr. Fingers, an ace plastic surgeon with the duel obsessions of maintaining the perfect face while also being tops in his field.

His massive ego rests on his work on mega-celebrities, to the point where he neglects all that is going on around him in his house and at his practice. In addition to his crumbling marriage, Dr. Fingers also faces a huge obstacle when his top assistance quits his practice to peddle her own services, which are aided by a spectacular new plastic surgery invention.
 
 

Certainly, this book is the stuff of soap operas, and all that is being lampooned here is easy fodder, but I have to say that I was charmed by the simple storytelling, the stylized art style, and the way that dialogue accompanies the illustrations almost like dialogue cards from a silent movie. The artwork and story both flow in deceptively simple and smooth manners.

This debut graphic novel is the creation of Will Dinski. He has makes books, has created various other short comics, and is also known for his political story Ablatio Penis. He talks more about his work on Fingerprints in this interview.

The reviews I have read about this book have been positive, with some reservations. Parabasis remarked that it was "built on clever iterations of theme rather than deep characterizations or world creation, and its drawing style efficiently moves the reader through the story." James Mason wrote that "it made me think about just how superficial we’ve gotten as a society" but wished it "cut deeper into this subject." Publishers Weekly commented that it "aims to be provocative, but ends up not as substantial as it could be."

Fingerprints was published by Top Shelf, and they have a preview and much more available here.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Rat Queens, Volume 1: Sass & Sorcery

Rat Queens is a comic book series about a band of four rowdy and brazen women looking for adventure and a good time. They are Hannah, an elf mage who is into rockabilly, Violet, a hipster dwarf, Dee the human cleric, and Betty the hippy halfling thief.
The Rat Queens live in a fantasy land inspired by Dungeons and Dragons-type sensibilities and characters. In the town of Palisade where they live is plagued by boisterous mercenaries who get hopped up on drugs and alcohol frequently. These factors, plus their overall disregard for authority and desire to get into scraps lands them in jail. The plot set-up here is that in order to repay their debt to society, the Rat Queens (along with other bands of adventurers who are in similar predicaments) have to fulfill certain quests or complete specific tasks. Where the intrigue comes in is that all of these requirements are pretense to some other sinister intentions.
 

As you can see from the excerpt above, the humor comes mostly from two areas: witty repartee and very expressive drawings. Also, the language and situations are frequently bawdy and salty. I think that the plot is clever, though I felt it was a bit slight until the end of this volume. The artwork is consistently excellent, making characters into larger than life personalities and adding much energy to the proceedings.

This book collects issues #1-5 of the comic book series. It was written by Kurtis J Wiebe and drawn by Roc Upchurch. Wiebe has been working on comics since 2009 and is known for this series and Peter Panzerfaust, a reimagining of Peter Pan in World War II. Upchurch is also known for drawing the series Vescell. The duo was nominated for an Eisner Award for Best New Series in 2014, but Upchurch has since left the series because of a domestic abuse charge.

The series has been very well received by the public and is reportedly being adapted into a cartoon. The reviews I read about this book were mostly positive. Robert Tutton wrote, "Sass and Sorcery bounces seamlessly from gore to humor, sprawling action to small personal moments — sometimes simultaneously, and that’s what makes the whole thing work so well." Publishers Weekly commented, "Possessed of very different body types, personalities, and idiosyncrasies, and not afraid to share exactly what they’re feeling, the Rat Queens are refreshing characters whose story will leave readers thirsty for more." Don Ventura was more down on the book, explaining that he felt very little for the cast because "their personal stories all feel tacked on as more of an afterthought, resulting in book that isn’t particularly compelling."

Sass & Sorcery was published by Image Comics, who have a preview and more here. The series is on-going and is currently on issue #8.


Thursday, January 1, 2015

My Top Graphic Novels of 2014

Ah, it is that time of year, time for me to name the graphic novels I regarded most from the past year.
In no particular order, and in random categories I picked because they seemed fitting, I give you my list (the title links lead to the original reviews):

Best Historical Fiction:
Hidden
A simply affecting story of a grandmother telling her granddaughter a long held, difficult secret. This one made me cry, I'm not going to lie.

Best Autobiography/Memoir:
Over Easy
I grew up in a family in the restaurant business, and this book perfectly captured the loony, earnest, random, and convoluted lives of the people who work in diners. It is a wonderful piece of nostalgia, beautifully rendered.

Best Biography:
Andre the Giant: Life and Legend
The behind the scenes life of the biggest wrestler ever. I liked that this book was full of interesting and almost unbelievable exploits but also did not shy away from the more difficult and negative aspects of a larger than life figure. This rare kind of biography is fun, complex, and bittersweet.

Best History:
Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood
This may be the most impressive entry of Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales yet, which is saying something because I LOVE the other books in this series. Its account of World War I is simultaneously informative, interesting, engaging, gruesome, and excellently presented. I am in awe of Hale's artwork and storytelling, and these might just be the best social studies texts I have ever read.

Best Art:
B+F
A gallery sized book full of colorful and beautiful illustrations. The wordless story follows a naked woman and a naked dog as they adventure in a primordial, teeming world. The narrative has a mythic, almost parable kind of quality. Some of the most powerful storytelling I read this year.

Best Superhero Book:
The Shadow Hero
Yang is a perennial presence on my best-of lists. I don't know how he keeps making such excellent books, but I am extremely glad he does. Here he teams up with artist Sonny Liew to tell an exceptional origin story of the first Chinese-American superhero. This book combines superhero comics, biography, family drama, and mythology in unique and gripping ways.

Best Mystery/Thriller:

Jules Feiffer tells and draws a noir story complete with a drunken PI, boxing scenes, Hollywood intrigue, and multiple murders. How could I not love this book?

Best All Ages Book:
Julia's House for Lost Creatures
Truly a book for all ages. I love its beautiful pictures, with its depictions of fantastic creatures like gnomes, trolls, dragons, and fairies. I also loved seeing them dance and jam out to records as well as do household chores. This book is a charmer that should appeal to lots of readers.

Best Sci-Fi Book:
Black Science, Volume 1: How to Fall Forever
An extremely well plotted piece of hard science fiction. It follows the exploits of a family and associates led by an egomaniacal and brilliant father as they travel across hostile dimensions, with little hope of ever returning home. The complicated relationships and character machinations make for excellent intrigue and suspense.

Best Book Starring a Witch, an Owl, and a Cat as Roommates Hooked on Drugs:
Megahex
The artwork is beautiful. The situations are funny, until they are not. The characters seem comical, but they are really depressed and sort of hate each other. There is a lot of cruelty, bickering, and haziness in this book, but the characters come off as so realistic you feel bad for them. I know I may not seem to be doing it justice with this description, but this book is much more complex and moving than it seems. Definitely not for kids.

Thanks for reading my blog, and HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Megahex

Megahex may very well be the funniest and saddest graphic novel I read this year. On the surface, the stories seem simple enough. There are three roommates, Megg (a witch), Mogg (her cat/lover), and Owl (a large anthropomorphic Owl) living in a house. They get high, they pull pranks on each other, and they cavort with their friends. Much of the beginning of the book is full of drug humor and gross bits, like an ugly feet contest and their friend Werefwolf Jones taking a grater to his genitals (it's not pretty). What is pretty is the painterly quality of the art, with cartoon images combined with watercolors. The storytelling is also quite deft, with a combination of one page gags like this:
It also has extended sequences like this one, which are episodic looks at their mundane lives:

Owl often is the butt of abuse, and for the most part these sequences are darkly humorous. As I read the book though, I began to realize more and more that it was also strongly about Megg's depression and her overwhelming sense of dread. The latter sequences of the book are a strong portrayal of a very troubled person trying to anesthetize herself to reality. So, in the end for me, this book is a great mass of contradictions: beautiful art used to tell base, stoner jokes and a pretty basic humor structure that slowly builds into a very serious drama. Megahex is a provocative and complex piece of art.

Simon Hanselmann created this book. He publishes new Megg, Mogg, and Owl webcomics each week at VICE. He speaks about his life, inspirations, and work on this book in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book praise it highly. Hilary Brown wrote, "There may be an abundance of stoner comedies, but very few stoner tragedies exist; Hanselmann’s subtle approach makes Megahex both at the same time." Henry Chamberlain explained, "Megahex, as is apt for its name, has magic. It is also way out there, our best connection today to the heyday of the comix underground." Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and concluded. "The story is depressing as often as it is funny, a cautionary tale that’s at its best when Hanselmann spreads his writing wings, extending beyond a gag strip into an honest exploration of his deeply flawed leads."

And if it is unclear by now, this is a book strictly for adults. It is full of drug use, sexual situations, crude humor, explicit language, disgusting bodily functions, and adult themes.

Megahex was published by Fantagraphics Books, and they provide a preview and much more here.